Andy Watches Movies and Cinema Schminema are hosting a Nostalgiathon Blogathon, the idea of which is to examine things from our youth through our now-adult eyes. Since that’s a large part of what I wind up doing here anyway, it’s a natural blogathon for me to want to join in, but I wanted to do something a bit special for it. Most of the time when I review a movie from my childhood here, it’s one that I don’t remember much at all; I usually don’t even remember whether I liked it, perhaps because I missed out on it, or wasn’t paying attention, or perhaps it’s just faded that much from my memory. Contrariwise, if I do remember it, and how I felt, I probably feel much the same way now as I did then; I’m actually fairly constant when it comes to liking things.
So I wanted to watch a film that would occupy a rare niche for me: something that I knew for certain that I had seen and liked, but yet remembered virtually nothing about. This would give me the best chance of seeing whether my enjoyment for it was out of genuine regard for the film, or if it was, indeed, just pure nostalgia.
Fortunately, a day spent at the flea market a few days after the Nostalgiathon introductory post provided me with the perfect subject for my review: Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird. The film was released in 1985, and of course stars the usual Muppet performers under Jim Henson and Frank Oz, and the human actors from Sesame Street. I remember watching it at home, and I know I watched it more than once. But I didn’t remember any details from it since I hadn’t seen it in a few decades and had been relatively young when I did see it — and it’s not exactly the sort of film that even 80s nostalgia fans go out of their way to remind each other about.
Which is a shame, because the Countmobile clearly deserves to be considered on any list of great movie vehicles.
I suspect the major reason Follow That Bird doesn’t get mentioned much even in nostalgia circles is that, well, it’s Sesame Street. There’s an inherent expectation that it’s not just for kids, it’s for small kids, and only small kids. It would be easy to expect that there’s nothing for grown-ups here. This expectation is subverted in the first frames of the movie by Oscar the Grouch parodying the introductory speech from Patton. This wink and nod to the adults in the audience is carried out throughout the rest of the film, with movie references (including a great North By Northwest homage), some witty remarks, and the use of guest stars that the adults would recognize even if the kids don’t. John Candy shows up as a police officer at one point, and the usual Muppet newscaster is replaced by Chevy Chase, who delivers his lines — including a very familiar weather report — with his Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” deadpan delivery.
Plus sage advice and a song from Waylon Jennings.
The plot, as one might surmise by the title, is centered around Big Bird (played as always by Caroll Spinney). Big Bird has come to the attention of the Feathered Friends society, a group of birds interested in making sure all birds find good homes with other birds. As Big Bird, despite his 8′ 2″ height, is merely six years old and is the only bird on Sesame Street, they send Miss Finch (Sally Kellerman) to find a good home for him. She convinces Big Bird that a new home with a bird family would be best for him, and he says goodbye to Sesame Street and takes up residence in Oceanview, Illinois with the Dodo family. But he quickly finds himself unhappy with his new life. The Dodos are idiots, incapable of handling the simplest things. They don’t understand how to play with Big Bird; his foster-siblings, Donny and Marie Dodo, pretend to be themselves when asked to play a game of Let’s Pretend. And worst of all, they won’t let Mr. Snuffleupagus come to visit. Birds should only associate with birds, in their eyes. And so Big Bird runs away, trying to make his way back to Sesame Street. Miss Finch tries to find him to return him to the Dodos. The Sesame Street folk, led by Gordon, try to find him to bring him home. And there’s trouble in-between, as Sam and Sid Sleaze (Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty) realize that an eight-foot talking bird might be just the ticket for their rundown funfair.
Just think what they would do for a flying monster.
Follow That Bird is certainly a children’s movie, and there’s not anything here that would frighten a small child, nor are there edge-of-your-seat thrills. But it does maintain a light sense of adventure as the various Sesame Street citizens try to find Big Bird, and as he wanders through America trying to find his way home. There are songs and several laughs along the way — some of which are aimed at children, and some which should get a laugh out of adults even without the nostalgia factor. The care and attention to detail in this film is the same as in any of the original Muppet movies, which of course were from pretty much the same era (The Muppets Take Manhattan came out only the year before). Though this is directed by Ken Kwapis, instead of Henson or Oz themselves, it still feels a lot like the Muppet movies. Even though it features characters from a kid-oriented show, it’s like the other Henson works in that it’s genuinely meant for the whole family.
And because Elmo wasn’t a regular character yet, he gets only a few seconds of screen time and no lines.
This “for the whole family” tone also means that while Sesame Street is an educational show, Follow That Bird is considerably more subtle in its messages. Sure, the Count counts, but there are no addition problems or grammar lessons here. And while there’s a moral undertone of tolerance, it’s not approached in a heavy-handed way; even the Dodos and the Feathered Friends society aren’t malicious, just misguided. It’s entirely possible to watch this without feeling like there’s any sermonizing going on, and I suspect if one weren’t looking for a moral message, it would be easy to overlook it. Not that moral messages are a bad thing, of course; just that it’s better, in my opinion, if they’re demonstrated by how characters act rather than having them spelled out. Granted, that does leave room for more than one interpretation, but that can provoke more thought anyway.
“Don’t trust social workers.” Got it.
While Follow That Bird is certainly a children’s movie, I found that even as an adult with no children, I was able to enjoy the film quite a bit. Some of this is surely due to nostalgic value — it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Bert and Ernie’s sibling squabbling or Cookie Monster’s omnivorous appetite — but I feel the film holds up quite well even without that. It has a simple airy sense of fun to it, a few more tender emotional moments, and a casual sense of humor that appeals. Kids will love it, of course, even those kids whose parents weren’t even born when this film was made (and now I really feel old….) But any parents who are watching with those kids, or any adults looking for an interesting side street off memory lane, will find it appealing as well.